Defining Criminology and its Nature

Defining Criminology and its Nature

Meaning of Criminology

In simple terms, criminology can be defined as “the scientific study of crime”. The meaning of criminology can be understood both in a narrow and a broader sense. In its narrow arena, criminology is deemed to be a study of crime and how to do away with such crime. However, comprehensively, criminology not only includes understanding the essence of crime causation but also deals with an in-depth analysis of the preventive measures, punitive procedures along with the behavioural changes of the criminal offenders and their treatment involving rehabilitation processes. The focal point of criminology revolves around the “study of crime causation, correction, and crime prevention”. It can be summed up that criminology helps understand the crime from a legal and social point of view. It aims at understanding crime as a social phenomenon.

Various definitions of criminology are as under-

  1. Edwin Sutherland has defined criminology as the study of crime as a social phenomenon that includes the process of making and breaking of the law along with the consequent reactions to the act of lawbreakers. Criminology aims to study law, crime, and the treatment of criminals simultaneously[1].
  2. Dr Kenny has defined criminology as the branch of criminal science dealing with the analysis of crime causation and prevention of crime[2].
  3. According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary criminology is defined as the scientific study of crime as a social phenomenon. It stresses the study of criminals and their mental traits, habits, discipline, etc.[3].

Origin and Stages of Evolution of Criminology

It is unerring to note that criminology as a subject has gained importance in the late 17th century and started to develop at a faster pace towards the advent of the 19th century. The origin and the development of criminology have to be understood by analyzing the various schools of thought associated with criminology which are discussed under[4] – 

Pre-classical School or Demonological school – 

Philosophers like Saint Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke were some of the proponents of this school of thought. The foundation of this school lay on the idea that in primitive and medieval societies, the values and thoughts of people were so religiously dominated that it was believed that if a person is committing an offence, he is administered by some evil or a demonic spirit. At that time people strongly believed that crime can only be eliminated by eliminating the criminal himself by subjecting him to various ordeals. The aim was to compel the evil to leave the body of the criminal by administering harsh punishments to him. They did not make any efforts to understand the true essence of crime causation and any other preventive measures to curb crime and criminals were left unexplored. It is apparent to note that during this period, greater emphasis was laid on the crime being a supernatural phenomenon. This school of thought was completely impractical as it was merely based on imagination and hypothetical situations.

Classical School of Thought – 

Mid 18th century was dominated by this school of thought. The period saw a significant shift of thought from religion to practicality. The two main proponents of this school were Beccaria and Donald Taft. Both of them proposed the idea of crime as an individual action based on the intention of the criminal. It was propounded that a person commits an offence of his own accord and not because of the influence of any spirit or demonic character. The concept of the free will of the person to commit the crime was given due recognition in this school of thought. However, there was not much change regarding the prevention of crime. There was not much advancement in the development of adequate punishment to curb crime. It is apparent to note that inflicting pain to the criminal was still considered an adequate measure to curtail the growing menace of crime. Here also, the multiple factors associated with the crime were left untouched. 

Positive or Lombrosian School of Thought – 

The major proponents of this school were Ceaser Lombroso, Enrico Ferri, Raffaello, and Garofalo. The idea of the classical school was criticized by these thinkers, and there was a shift of focus from crime to criminals. Efforts were made to understand the personality of the criminal rather than the nature of the crime committed. Lombroso was the first who undertook an anthropological study to understand the physical reasons behind the commission of a crime. He believed that criminals are generally physically inferior individuals to the rest of the populace. He finally concluded by demarcating three criminals into three categories namely hereditary criminals, insane criminals, and criminaloids. Similarly, a five-fold classification of criminals was given by Enrico Ferri based on physical, anthropological, and physiological factors. According to him criminals can be born criminals, occasional criminals, passionate criminals, insane criminals, and habitual criminals. Further, Raffaello and Garofalo categorized criminals into 4 sub-heads murderers, violent criminals, criminals lacking sentiments, and lustful criminals.

The Press Council of India

Neo-classical School of Thought – 

The emphasis was laid on the reformation of the criminal. This school of thought sought to differentiate between the one-time offender and habitual offenders. The centre of focus was to render adequate punishments to the offender following his mental status. It was believed that no two offenders can be sanctioned similar punishments. Rather, the circumstances and the nature of each criminal should be studied to determine the actual cause of their criminality. This school of thought adopted a subjective approach to criminology and emphasized the conditions which were distinctive to each criminal or similarly placed criminals. It aimed to individualize the concept of punishment.

Clinical School of Criminology – 

This is the most advanced school of criminology that focuses on exploring the clinical factors behind the commission of crimes. This school stressed the biological inheritance of the criminal and the condition to which he has been subject since infancy till the actual commission of the crime. This school further weighs on the corrections and reformation of the criminal, however, if a person does not respond adequately to the corrective measures then he shall be subject to the punitive techniques.

Sociological School of Criminology – 

The emphasis has been laid on Edwin Sutherland’s theory of differential association to expound on the causation of crime based on social factors. He emphasized that there is a correlation between crime and changes in social organization. He further emphasized that a humanitarian approach shall be adopted to treat the offender. It is not merely enough to punish the offender but it is the needs of time to reform the offender through the processes of rehabilitation. Persuasive methods of correction should be adopted rather than traditional punitive methods. 

These six schools of thought help us understand the evolution of criminology as a subject of law in present-day society. Presently, criminology is not only concerned with the causes of crime and its prevention but the due weight has been put on apprehending the criminal behaviour and the necessary rehabilitation and reformatory processes needed to control the criminal aspirations. Criminology now has been developed into an interdisciplinary subject that is largely studied in correlation to other subjects. Criminology as a subject has been largely studied in two approaches i.e. theoretical approach and the pragmatic approach. The theoretical approach includes criminal anthropology, criminal sociology, criminal psychology, criminal psycho-neuro pathology, and penology. On the other hand, a pragmatic approach involves statistical methods and treatments for criminal behaviour [5].

Nature of Criminology: Is It Pure Science?

It has been a much-debated issue that criminology can be deemed to be a science. To understand the essence of this issue, it is pertinent to understand the meaning of the term ‘science’. The science council has defined science as the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence[6]. Science is the branch of study based on experimentations, observations, and derivations. It has been argued that though criminology is a scientific study of crime but it can hardly be deemed to be pure science. Criminology aims at studying crime and the causes of crime scientifically. Simultaneously, it strives to draw scientific conclusions as to the behavioural changes that instigate a person to commit a certain offence. Though the behavioural changes can be tested and observed through scientific experimentation it is imperative to note that the conclusion of these experiments is not that concrete. The outcomes usually vary from person to person. And it is rather difficult to reach a common ground of behavioural changes in different categories of offenders. Thus, it can be summed up that though scientific processes are followed to find criminal solutions, these processes do not give concrete derivations to be adopted for all criminal offenders. It is the diversity of human behaviour that poses a problem in defining criminology as pure science. Human behaviour is ever-evolving. It is strenuous to ascertain the true features and nature of a human as compared to that of another human. This dynamism of behaviour can be deemed to be the sole reason for the mixed nature of criminology. Criminology is a multidisciplinary subject that is studied along with sociology, political science, history, psychiatry, etc. It cannot be studied in isolation from other disciplines. The study of other disciplines becomes imperative to provide a holistic approach to the study of crime and criminals. It is thus summarised that criminology is an impure science focusing on the holistic study of crime and criminals with the help of scientific techniques and methods. 


  1. Thomas J. Bernard (ed.),”Edwin Sutherland”, Encyclopedia Britannica, October 7th, 2020, available at: (last visited on 26 December 2020).
  2. Hemant More, “what is criminology?, March 21st, 2020, available at concepts of criminology- what is criminology/ (last visited on December 26th, 2020).
  3. “Criminology.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster available at: (last visited on December 26th, 2020).
  1. Mrs. Glory Nirmala.k, “Criminology (teaching material)”, available at: (last visited on December 26th, 2020).
  2. Hemant More, “what is criminology?”, 21 March 2020, available at concepts of criminology- what is criminology/ (last visited on December 26th, 2020).
  3. Science council,  “our definition of science”, available at: (last visited on December 27th, 2020).


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *